Monday, September 30, 2019

MUST-SEE: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

            The movie I am going to write about is not only a foreign film, but the best war film I have seen since I started my blog.  It reinforced my belief that modern war films can and should be superior to old school war movies, even the classics.  Technology and experience are huge advantages for modern war movie makers. “Waltz With Bashir” is an Israeli film released in 2008.  The movie blew me away because it hit several of my buttons.  It is historically accurate, I learned about an event that I knew little about, it is realistic in its depiction of the military and combat, and it is striking in its cinematography.

            Writer and director Ari Folman spent four years creating what he calls an “animated documentary”.  If not the first of this type, it is still ground-breaking.  It won numerous awards and was critically acclaimed. The film is autobiographical.  Folman takes as his theme the effects of war on memory.  The movie begins with a jaw-dropping three-dimensionally animated scene of a pack of dogs running through the streets to a man’s apartment building.  The dogs represent a memory flashback for a friend of Ari.  The friend tells Ari each dog represented the 26 dogs he sniped during the Lebanon War of 1982.  This conversation causes Ari to confront the fact that he has holes in his memory of his experiences in Lebanon.  That very night he has his first flashback which involves himself and some naked comrades coming ashore on a beach at the city of Beirut.  Another friend theorizes that people sometimes fill in gaps in their memory with fiction.  He encourages Ari to try to fill in those gaps with the truth.  Don’t fear opening those doors, “memory takes us where we want to go”.  He assures Ari he cannot get hurt by learning the truth.

            Ari goes on a quest to talk to comrades he served with and other veterans of the invasion.  Their individual stories are vignettes that powerfully depict the nature of modern war.  Several universal truths about warfare and young soldiers shine through.  The adrenalin-fueled fear in a firefight is followed by the overwhelming silence of death.  Soldiers tend to fire their weapons at nothing and nowhere when traveling through enemy territory.  Soldiers are clueless pawns of the brass and the pols.  Surviving members of a unit suffer guilt feelings.  Unlike some anti-war movies, “Waltz with Bashir” does not glamorize the appealing aspects of armed combat.

            The movie and Ari’s quest builds to the infamous Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre.  Ari’s unit is sent into western Beirut after the assassination of the Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayal.  The film takes its title from an incident in which a member of Ari’s unit waltzes with a machine gun in the middle of a Beirut street while under fire from snipers and RPGs and as Lebanese civilians spectate.  Time seems to stand still as he twirls amidst the bullet casings and ricochets.  The dance symbolizes Israel’s relationship with Bashir.

            The film concludes with the Israeli Defensive Forces allowing vengeance-minded Christian Phalange militia to enter the Muslim camps.  The individual Israeli soldiers exhibit cognitive dissonance as they are slow to grasp what is clearly taking place before their eyes, abetted by their lighting the night skies with flares.  It takes three days for an Israeli general t
o order a stop to the killings.  The movie makes it clear that the Israeli government (Defense Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Begin) was complicit in the massacre, but Folman is not on a crusade.  He lets the audience connect the dots.  The memory theme comes full circle as Ari realizes that he had filled in the black hole of his memory of being near the atrocity by imagining that he and his comrades were instead at a beach.  The movie closes with real footage of the massacre victims as though to remind the audience that although animated, the story is true.

            I love war movies because I love Military History.  I have been attracted to war stories since I was a child because of the action, but also because war brings out all the emotions and character traits in human beings.  I prefer war movies that have action and are true to human nature.  They don’t have to be historically accurate, but I insist they not be ridiculous and unrealistic.  When you have seen as many war films as I have, you also are impressed when the movie takes a different approach to telling a war story.  “Waltz with Bashir” fits this description (as do “300” and “Oh! What a Lovely War”).  Movies like these prove that although the war movie genre (starting with “Birth of a Nation”) is almost a century old, there are still new ways to tell a war story.

            “Waltz” looks very different from every other war film I have seen.  Folman uses a variety of animation.  The movie is mostly a blend of cut-out and classic animation.  It is influenced by graphic novels and has a scene reminiscent of Japanese animation.  He includes some three-dimensional scenes, but used the technique sparingly and only for spectacular shots.  His use of color varies depending on the mood of the scene.  The war scenes tend to be monochromatic.  The home front scenes are much more vibrant.  (He makes the point that although he was fighting only twenty minutes away, at home the public was unaffected by the war and life went on as usual.)  The shading and shadows are amazing.  The look is mesmerizing.  Blu-ray was made for movies like this.

            The movie is true to human nature mainly because these are real people who Ari interviewed and built the story on.  From my reading of men in combat, I have a good idea of how men behave under that stress.  For those vast majority of people who do not want to read extensively in this difficult area, movies can serve the purpose of educating civilians about what their young warriors go through.  This is important because these young men deserve to be understood.  Civilians need second-hand memory.  Undoubtedly, some Israelis were offended by what they saw in “Waltz”.  The fact is that atrocities happen on both sides in every war.  Good war movies like this show what really happens in war, but also provide the why.

            As an American, I admit to being ignorant about most modern non-American wars.  My blog experience and Caroline’s influence have opened up my eyes to several conflicts that I would have remained clueless about.  I have watched movies on the Bosnian War (“No Man’s Land”, “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”), the First Chechan War (“Prisoner of the Mountain”), and the Lebanon War (“Beaufort”, “Lebanon”).    They are all good movies that taught me something and encouraged me to research the war.  My modus operandi when I read books is usually to read books that I can learn from.  I am not as strict with movies, but it’s an added bonus when the movie is instructive.

            In conclusion, we war movie lovers all have our reasons for loving this genre.  But don’t forget it is a genre with many fascinating subgenres.  Be willing to sample from them all, even the ones where you have to read.  And try out the newest one – animated war documentary.

GRADE  =  A+

Thursday, September 26, 2019


1.  What movie are the three pictures from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

"It's Hebrew, it's from the Talmud. It says, 'Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.'"

3.  What movie is this?

 It is based on the bestseller by James Bradley and Ron Powers.  It is the rare Hollywood production that not only came in under cost ($55 million compared to a budget of $80 million), but was filmed in almost half the time scheduled.  Seventy six year old directors apparently don’t like to waste time or money.  The beach scenes were filmed in Iceland.  The film did well with critics, but performed weakly at the box office.  It is a companion piece with another movie made by the same director about the same battle. It was nominated for Academy Awards for  Sound and Sound Editing.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Tarzan Goes to War, Again: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

                        Recently I watched an old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movie entitled “Tarzan Triumphs” (1943).  Tarzan battles Nazis in that one, which makes it the rare Tarzan movie that is a war movie.  “The Legend of Tarzan” can be deemed a war movie too, if you stretch the definition a bit.  In this case, the apeman fights Belgian mercenaries.  Before you say this is a step down from Nazis, the Belgians are led by Christopher Waltz.   The movie was directed by David Yates, he of the last four Harry Potter movies and the Fantastic Beasts series, so you know there was no intention to make a retro Tarzan movie.  In fact, it is quite the opposite of “Tarzan Triumphs”.  For instance, the swinging Tarzan is CGI.  However, that body of Alexander Skarsgard is the real deal, ladies.  He trained and dieted for four months for the role.  The first choice, Michael Phelps, would not have had to do that, but his hosting stint on Saturday Night Live ended that thought of stunt casting.  Emma Stone was considered for the Jane role before Margot Robbie got it.  Sorry fellas, Skarsgard is the only one who takes his shirt off.  The screenplay started out being based on the Burrough’s books The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.  However, the final screenplay bore little resemblance to those novels.  The film had a $180 million budget and made around $360 million worldwide, which in the wacky world of Hollywood accounting, was not enough to warrant a sequel.  Let’s see if the movie itself warranted a sequel. 

                        In 1884, at the Belgian Conference, the European powers divided up the Congo.  King Leopold of Belgium claimed the Congo basin with its abundant ivory, minerals, and apes.  Five years later, he was in debt and needed the legendary diamonds of Opar.  He sends his sinister agent Leon Rom (Waltz) to get them.  Rom and his mercenaries do the Tarzan movie trope of slaughtering natives, but since this is a 21st Century Tarzan movie, they get counter-slaughtered.  Rom survives for plot purposes and makes a deal with the Opar chief.  If Rom can seduce Tarzan to leave his cushy British life and get him back to Africa for a revenge killing, the diamonds are Belgium’s.  It seems the chief’s son was killed by Tarzan so he wants payback.  And the movie needs to get Skarsgard out of his clothes.  (By the way, ladies, you can fast forward to the 1:10 mark, if that’s what you came for.  Be aware, this Tarzan does not wear a loin cloth, but I don’t think you will be too disappointed.  Do the words “eight pack abs” intrigue you?)  The now totally civilized Lord Greystoke (he doesn’t grunt like in the movie “Greystoke”) is not falling for any free trip to Africa offer from the Belgians, but he does agree to accompany an American named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in order to save the slaves.  At this point the periodic flashbacks kick in.  These pretty much conform to the basic Tarzan biography.  The rest of the story does not.  Tarzan brings Jane along because Victorian ladies always got their way, right?  They get separated with Jane playing feisty damsel in distress (she’s captured twice!) and Tarzan (with help from his Azeem -  Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves) swinging and slinging.  Tarzan has to fight not only apes, but the natives.  (Both these groups stand in for Native Americans, like in Avatar.  To hammer the analogy in, Williams makes a point of mentioning his role in the conquest of the American West.)   For a hero, Tarzan sure has a lot of enemies.  This all culminates in the type of over the top set piece that you would expect from a 21st Century Tarzan movie.  (Note the wildebeest charge straight out of Avatar.)

                        These days rebooting does not mean going back to the basics.  It means reanimating Edgar Rice Burrough’s series and pumping it full of adrenaline.  And shrinking the brain.  This movie has more action and mayhem than five Weismuller movies combined.  But that’s what audiences want, right?  Few people today have seen even one of the old Tarzan movies.  If they had, they would have demanded a Cheetah!  In fact, there is little humor in this overly serious film.  It’s kind of hard to be light with slavery.  There is a wink-wink moment when Skarsgard does the Tarzan yell and Rom says:  “It’s rather different than I thought.”  Williams gets to say “Me Tarzan, you Jane” which is the first time that iconic line has been used in any Tarzan movie!   The actors are fine and Skarsgard makes a good Tarzan.  He certainly invested in the role and I’m guessing the ladies liked the choice.  Waltz is continuing to work on getting typecast.  He’s a suave Nazi, I mean Belgian.  The movie throws in a more cartoonish villain in the mercenary leader and then doesn’t bother to flesh him out or give him a cheer-worthy death.  The CGI is fine, especially for the apes.  Tarzan’s fight with his “brother” is amazing.  We have reached the point where Skarsgard did not have to swing on a vine.  That was CGI.  You wouldn’t know it, but the movie was filmed in England with only helicopter views of the gorgeous landscape of Gabon.  Unfortunately, the availability of CGI encourages directors to have silly, unrealistic set pieces like what swamps the movie at the end.

                        “The Legend of Tarzan” was not a misfire.  It is better than the last attempt to revive the series – 1984’s “Greystoke”.  The problem is that it is not as good as the better Weismuller entries.  More is not better.  Our modern penchant for adding more and more action scenes that defy reality and then topping them off with a showstopping and brain cell reducing set piece results in a movie that made $360 million, but barely turned a profit.  Considering the glut of superhero movies, it is hard to see Tarzan becoming a franchise.  Burrough’s novels might be too intellectual for today’s comic book weaned audiences.  When you aim your Tarzan movie at a comic book audience, you lose the quaint childlike wonder of the old Tarzan movies.  But no studio is going to make a movie like that, so watch one of the Weismuller movies.  Johnny didn’t have eight pack abs, but he did his own swinging and swimming.  And he had Cheetah.

GRADE  =  C+

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

CONSENSUS #59 The African Queen

SYNOPSIS: During WWI in Africa, a feisty missionary (Katharine Hepburn)  and a crusty riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) team up to try to sink a German warship.  Romance and adventures ensue as they encounter rapids and an uncooperative Mother Nature on their trek down the river.

BACK-STORY: The African Queen had one of the most famous productions in cinema history. Director John Huston insisted on filming half the movie on location in Uganda and the Congo.  The Katharine Hepburn later wrote of enjoying the experience, but had to overcome dysentery, drunken pranks from Bogart and Huston, and Hustons unique directing style. (Clint Eastwood later made a film about the production entitled White Hunter Black Heart.) The movie was a big hit with audiences and critics. It turned out the suits that thought an action / romance about an older couple would be icky were wrong. Bogart won the Best Actor Oscar and the film was nominated for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress. In the most recent AFI ranking of the best movies it placed #65.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, making of documentary
 1.  It is based on a novel by C.S. Forester. 
2.  It has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
3.  Allnut was supposed to have a cockney accent, but Bogart could not pull it off so the character wasmade a Canadian. 
4.  The boat is now a tourist attraction in Key Largo, Florida.
5.  Bogart won his only Best Actor Oscar.  (Bogart was so sure he would not win he did not prepare remarks.) 
6.  The cast and crew were often sick in Africa (usually from dysentery from the water), but not Bogart and Huston because the only water they drank was with their copious amounts of scotch.  Teetotaler Hepburn had to make runs to puke in a waiting bucket during the church scene.
7.  Lauren Bacall accompanied her husband Bogart of Africa and served as movie mom for the cast and crew.  She nursed and cooked. 
8.  For the rapids scene, an eight foot model was used. 
9.  Huston was concerned about the overly serious tone of Hepburn’s performance so he counseled her to channel Eleanor Roosevelt, specifically her “society smile”.  Hepburn later said it was the best advice she ever got from a director.
10.  Bogart hated Africa, Hepburn loved it.
11.  Originally when the book was mentioned as a potential movie, Bette Davis and David Niven were considered for the leads.  Later, it was going to be Davis and James Mason.
12.  Huston was going to go on location in Kenya until he learned that big game hunting was illegal there.  He switched to the Congo.  Huston spent a lot of time hunting during the shoot. 
13.  Bogart and Huston played numerous pranks on the prim Hepburn.  They would write dirty words on her mirror with soap.
14.  All of the scenes with the actors in the water were shot in Great Britain because the water in Africa was dangerous.
15.  Distributors hated their first look.  They complained about Bogart’s unshaven look and thought Hepburn looked old.
16.  The novel White Hunter, Black Heart by Peter Viertel was a thinly veiled story about the making of “The African Queen”.  Viertel was one of the screenwriters on the film.  Later, Clint Eastwood directed the movie version and played the Huston character.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  N/A
War Movies         =  5.0
Military History  =  #32
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  yes
101 War Movies  =  no
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no 

OPINION:   “The African Queen” is one of the classic movies of any genre.  While not 
definitively a war movie (as you can see above), it seems well-placed at #59.  I personallywould not have it in my top 100.  It is old fashioned entertainment. It’s an almost perfectblend of adventure and romance. There is suspense in each of travails they go throughand it builds to a surprising and satisfying ending (which is much better than in the novel).Although a little stodgy, the plot holds up better than some other supposed classics.The acting by the two leads could not be better. This is probably Bogart’s best performanceand Hepburn matches him.

Monday, September 16, 2019


1.  What movie is the picture from?

2.  What movie is this quote from?

By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William the Second I pronounce you man and wife - proceed with the execution. 

3.  What movie is this?

It was released in 1993 and immediately took a position among the great movies of any genre.   Modestly, the director tried to convince Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Billy Wilder to direct the pic, but for various reasons they turned him down.  He refused to make any “blood money” for the film.  The movie is based on the novel by Thomas Keneally.  The movie was shot on location in Krakow, Poland.  The film won numerous awards.  It was awarded Oscars for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, and Original Score.  It was the most expensive black and white film made up to then (topping “The Longest Day”).  It had been 33 years since a black and white movie had won Best Picture (“The Apartment”).  It is #8 on AFIs latest list of greatest American motion pictures.  (That was up from #9 from the original list.)  It was #3 on its Epic Films list.  Goth was #13 on its Villains list.  The movie cost $22 million and made $96 million at home and $225 million abroad.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

SHOULD I READ IT? Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972)

                        “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” is a Japanese WWII film by Kinji Fukasaku.  It was Japan’s nominee for Best Foreign Film for the 45th Academy Awards, but it did not make the cut.  It should have.  It came out in the 1970s when it was possible to criticize the war and the emperor.  It opens with “Our military has always served at the discretion of the Emperor”.  By the end of the movie, you’ll be wondering why.  This is followed by footage of the Emperor giving a speech and laying a wreath to honor the dead.  But there is no honor for Sgt. Katsuo Togashi (Tetsuro Tamba) because he deserted on New Guinea and was executed for it in August, 1945.  Because of his dishonor, his widow Sakie (Sachko Hidari) cannot get survivor’s benefits.  She believes he was innocent and to prove it she determines to seek out four of his comrades.  The movie follows her odyssey to find the truth.  As she interviews each veteran, flashbacks support their stories.  Those stories are sometimes contradictory, however.  The mystery deepens.  Was Togashi a hero or a traitor?

                        The film bears the stamp of Fukasaku.  He was an early practitioner of the shaky camera style.  The cinematography is intriguing.  There are some hand-held camera-work and quick cut editing.  Most interestingly, Fukasaku uses freeze-frames.  He inserts photos instead of footage.  Some of the pictures are gruesome.  They reflect the experiences of the Japanese soldiers.  The horrific vibe is not limited to the photos as there are scenes of extreme violence.  Since the flashbacks are set in the last months of the war, the hardships the Japanese soldiers encounter are realistically appalling.  You will definitely come out of this movie with more empathy for the common Japanese soldier.  And Japanese viewers in 1972 learned that not all of their warriors were fanatics.    What Togashi and his mates go through is reminiscent of “Fires on the Plains” and the movie makes a good companion to that movie.  For instance, there is a reference to cannibalism in this movie.  Just don’t watch them back-to-back.  That would be too depressing. 

                        “Under the Flag of the Rising Sun” is the rare war mystery.  It has a touch of “Rashomon” in it.  The men Sakie tracks down offer contradictory and self-serving versions of what happened to her husband.  One of her interviewees thinks her husband was executed for stealing potatoes.  This makes the final result unpredictable.  And that makes the movie very entertaining.  The acting is stellar and the characters are indelible.    I hesitate to deem it great, but it is certainly a must-see for serious war movie fans.

GRADE  =  B+

Thursday, September 12, 2019

CONSENSUS #60. Kagemusha (1980)

SYNOPSIS: Kagemusha means shadow warrior and refers to the practice of some Japanese daimyo of having doubles for security. The movie is set in the same Sengoku (Warring States) period that The Seven Samurai was set in. A shogun wannabe has a double who is a petty thief. When the daimyo (Tatsuya Nakadai, who also plays the thief) is assassinated, the kagemusha takes his place and has to deal with two lords who are at war with him.  The movie climaxes in an epic battle.

BACK-STORY: Many feel that Kagemusha is Akira Kurosawas greatest masterpiece. He certainly meant for it to be. He got the idea for a samurai epic years before but career setbacks (like being fired from Tora! Tora! Tora!) and funding issues set things back and the film almost did not get made.  It ended up being the biggest budget Japanese movie up until then.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (losing to “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”). Kurosawa won the BAFTA for Direction.  It won the Palme D’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb

1.  It is an example of a genre called “jidaigeki”.  These are period films set in the Edo Period (1603-1868).  These types of movies usually concentrated on the lives of samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.  A subgenre is called “chambara” which means “sword fight”.  Movies like “Kagemusha” have similar make-up, language, catch phrases (e.g., “Fires and brawls are the flower of Edo”) and plotlines.
2.  Technically, “Kagemusha” is pre-Edo, but it certainly fits the genre.

3.  George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola were credited as executive producers because when Toho Studios could not finish the funding for the film, they convinced 20th Century Fox to put up the rest of the money.  Lucas and Coppola were big Kurosawa fans and were blown away by his personally painted story-boards for the film.  20th Century Fox got the international distribution rights, which was the first time an American studio distributed a Japanese film.

4.  Part of the expense for the movie was Kurosawa bringing in two hundred specially trained horses from America.  Many of the horses were ridden by expert female riders.

5.  Originally Shintaro Katsu was to play the main role, but he was fired when he showed up on set with a camera crew to film Kurosawa’s methods for a film class he taught.  Kurosawa brought in Nakadai because he had worked with him many times.  Nakadai took the role without even reading the script.

6.  Kurosawa used 5,000 extras in the final battle.

7.  Much of the costumes and armor were borrowed from museums.

8.  The final battle is the Battle of Nagashino (1575).

9.  No female appears in the movie until the 73rd minute.

Belle and Blade  =  N/A
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  N/A
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  #34
Channel 4             =  no
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =   no

CONCLUSION: Not being an American director or professional movie critic, I feel I can impartially rule that Kagemusha is overrated. I can see why they fawn over it, but as an average viewer it is too long and boring. There is way too much talking (and yelling) and not enough action. There are big buildups to the battles and then little pay-off. Even the final battle is brief. It does not belong on this list and is inferior to Seven Samurai (which did not make the list).

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

BOOK / MOVIE: Regeneration (1991 / 1997)

       Regeneration was the first in a trilogy by British author Pat Barker.  The other two novels, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, continue the stories of Rivers, Prior, and Sassoon.  The trilogy is firmly in the WWI novel tradition of “war is hell!”  It deals with trauma and recovery.  What better war than the Great War for that?  Barker was inspired by the experiences of her step-grandfather who was wounded in the war and never talked about it.  The seed of the story came from her neurologist husband’s interest in psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers.  The book’s title is a reference to Rivers’ pioneering work in nerve regeneration, but the story concentrates on his work with “shell shock” victims.  Rivers works at Craiglockhart hospital which before the war was a hydropathic (water therapy) institute.  From 1916-1919 it was turned into a psychiatric hospital and Rivers became the most famous doctor there.  Barker decided to blend actual historical figures into the fictional narrative.  Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were famous poets whose experiences in the war inspired great poetry.  Barker used their poetry and eyewitness accounts to enhance authenticity.  I must credit Barker with making an enlightened decision to write a book that combines shell shock treatment with real life figures.  Using Sassoon’s anti-war stance as the focal point was pure brilliance.  And, although a work of fiction, the novel is amazingly accurate.

                The book opens with Sassoon’s “Finished with the War:  A Soldier’s Declaration” which was an open letter condemning the war as a war of aggression.  Rather than a messy court-martial, Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves (another poet) convinces a government board to assign him to Craiglockhart as a mental case, thus discrediting his screed.  Rivers is given the case and feels it is his duty to return Sassoon to the front.  Sassoon makes the acquaintance of Owens and becomes something of a mentor to him.  Sassoon (who was already a famous poet) gets Owens to use, instead of ignore, his war experiences to inspire his poetry.  Owen comes to realize that writing can be “like exorcism”.  Barker created the fictional character Billy Prior as an antagonist to Rivers’ talk therapy.  At first, he is suffering from mutism and amnesia, but Rivers goads him into talking again.  Prior is a difficult patient, although he does want to return to the war because it is the proper British thing to do.  He had not been at the front long enough to “join the club”.   “[British men] had been trained to identify emotional repression, as the essence of manliness.  Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures.  Not men.”  In his sessions with Rivers, Prior uses Rivers’ own PTSD as leverage.  Rivers is clearly traumatized by his duty of “curing” men so they can be sent back to the reason for the cure.  Returning the damaged to be damaged.  “Rivers was aware, as a constant background to his work, of a conflict between his belief that the war must be fought to the finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations, and his horror that such events as those which had led to Burns’ breakdown should be allowed to continue.”  Prior is given a fictional girlfriend.  Sarah is a munitions worker.  “Men said they didn’t tell their women about France because they didn’t want to worry them.  But it was more than that.  He needed her ignorance to hide in.”  Some of the other patients include Burns (based on an actual patient), who cannot eat food without remembering being thrown by an explosion to land face first into a rotting corpse’s stomach.  Burns gets his own storyline, but the novel is really about Rivers/Sassoon, Sassoon/Owens, and Rivers/Prior.  The main thread being Sassoon’s arc toward the medical board that will determine whether he will return to combat.  In the end, honor trumps common sense and the survival instinct.

                The movie follows the book closely, but streamlines the plot by eliminating some scenes.  It wisely adds combat scenes to emphasize the horrors that brought on the shell shock.  (Thankfully, we don’t have to see the reason for Burns’ trauma.)  These are done in the recent visceral cinematography of war films and balance the otherwise dialogue-focused events of the hospital.  For instance, the movie opens with an aerial view of no man’s land, whereas the book opens with Sassoon’s letter.  The movie, strangely, does not give the audience the full text of the letter.  It cuts the scene where Graves explains to Rivers the Sassoon situation and gives him some of his poems.  The movie, being British, makes the assumption the audience is already familiar with Graves, Sassoon, and Owens.  This, of course, does not apply to American audiences and might explain the movies tepid reception in the States (where it bizarrely was renamed “Behind the Lines” – a double-meaning that was meaningless to most). 

                In the novel, Barker is able to flesh out the stories of Rivers, Sassoon, Owens, Prior, and Burns.  Burns is virtually left out of the movie.  The movie leads off with Owens finding Burns naked in the woods amongst dead animals.  This scene was inspired by a sequence in the novel where Burns goes off in a bus, gets off, goes in some woods, and finds a tree with dead animals hanging in it.  He then undresses, but later reclads himself and returns on his own.  In the book, Rivers approves the release of Burns when clearly he is not stable.  Rivers visits him and finds him to be on the brink of another breakdown.  Rivers reaches this brink himself and gets a job with the Royal Flying Corps before Sassoon leaves.  He returns for Sassoon’s board.  The scene with Doctor Yealland (a real historical figure) takes place after Rivers leaves Craiglockhart and is well-depicted in the movie.  The visit to Yealland is better placed in the book because it comes after Rivers has left his patients and is questioning his own methods.  The Prior/Sarah romance is given more coverage in the book.  You get more of the roller-coaster ride that a relationship with Prior would involve.   For closure, the movie throws in Sassoon being wounded when he returns to the front (which actually happened) and the corpse of Owens.  I assume Barker left this for the second book of the trilogy.

                As you would expect, reading the novel will give you more perspective on why the patients, and Rivers, behave the way they do.  You get more of their back-stories.  For instance, you find out that Prior’s breakdown came when he picked up a severed eye.  Barker makes Rivers into something of a patient himself, the movie only alludes to this.  The novel’s Rivers has more of a stammer (which was a bit of literary manipulation as he stuttered since childhood) and has nightmares.  The movie has to streamline the dialogue so the book has longer and more satisfying sessions between Rivers and his patients.  On the other hand, the screenwriters were able to trim some of the flab from the book. For example, the movie eliminates Rivers’ awkward visit with the “cured” Burns.  Unfortunately, for people hoping to learn more about the poetry of Owens and Sassoon and the process that brought it about, the movie does not have time to delve into that.  Literary history takes a back seat to the history of trauma therapy.  Mores the pity.

                In conclusion, I had a hard time choosing between the book and the movie.  But, then again, one does not have to choose.  As is my policy, I recommend watching the movie first and then reading the book.  This usually works out well for me.  In this case, the movie is very well done and faithful to the book.  The cast is excellent in embodying the characters from the book.  The screenwriter, Allan Scott, has delivered more than just a Cliff Notes version of the book.  He retains a lot of the dialogue and most of the scenes.  His deletions make cinematic sense.  If you are not into reading, the movie is certainly an acceptable way to learn the remarkable story of Rivers, et al.  I beg you to follow up the movie with some reading of the poetry of Graves, Sassoon, and Owens.  Here is Owens’ “Anthem for Dying Youth” (which Owens and Sassoon discuss in the movie and tinker with in the book): 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

CONSENSUS #61. Tora! Tora! Tora!

SYNOPSIS:  “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor told from both points of view.  It is mainly the command perspective, but it does culminate in an exciting reenactment of the attack with real aircraft.  The movie covers the months leading up to the attack, so you get both the military and political machinations.  It has a docudrama feel to it with an ensemble cast that portrays mostly historical characters.  Spoiler alert:  the Japanese win. 

BACK-STORY:    It had three directors:  Robert Fleischer (“The Vikings”), Toshia Masuda, and Kinji Fukasaku (“Under the Flag of the Rising Sun”).  It was based on books by Ladislas Farago and Gordon Prange (At Dawn We Slept).  Five B-17s, two P-40 Warhawks and a PBY Catalina were available for the production.  The Japanese Zeros, Kates, and Vals were played by modified A-6 Texans and BT-13 Valiants.  Full scale mock-ups of the battleship Nagato and the aircraft carrier Akagi were built on the shore with ninety feet extending over the water.   The movie won the Oscar for Best Special Effects and was nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, and Sound.  The movie was a flop at the box office in America, but a big hit in Japan.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, TCM
 1.  The Japanese word “tora” means either “surprise achieved”, “attack”, or “tiger”.
 2.  Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to recreate the success of his “The Longest Day”.  He also wanted to offer a revisionist view of the attack.  Specifically, he was interested in refuting the belief that Admiral Kimmel and Gen. Short were to blame for the debacle.
3.  The movie was a joint Japanese-American production.  Akiro Kurosawa was the original Japanese director, but his style did not fit an American blockbuster and he chaffed at the suits looking over his shoulder.  The suits chaffed at his slow and costly production methods.  Some think he was so miserable with the situation that he purposely aggravated the studio into firing him.  After working on the film for two years, he was fired two weeks into filming.  Only about one minute of his work made it into the film.
4.  The casting director was told to eschew big stars so the story would be the focus. 
5.  A B-17 was forced to make a crash landing because of a jammed landing gear.  With a heads up on the situation, cameras were set up and it made it onto the screen. 
6.  At one point over 30 aircraft were in the air. 
7.  The main technical adviser was historian Gordon Prange who wrote “At Dawn We Slept” (entitled “Tora, Tora, Tora” in Japan).  He had a lot of say on the script. 
8.  The U.S. Navy allowed a lot of personnel to participate off-duty.  This caused some complaints from some Americans who still held a grudge over the attack.
9.  The film credited 224 actors – 137 Americans + 87 Japanese.

Belle and Blade  =  4.0
Brassey’s              =  4.0
Video Hound       =  3.8
War Movies         =  N/A
Military History  =  no
Channel 4             =  #39
Film Site                =  no
101 War Movies  =  yes
Rotten Tomatoes  =  no

OPINION:  I do not understand the lack of love this movie got from critics.  Yes, it is not splashy entertainment, but it is as accurate as you could expect and it is not a stale documentary.  Along with “The Longest Day”, it is the best battle movie when it comes to giving fair treatment to both sides.  It has some of the best air combat footage and this without CGI.  The fact that it was a box office flop and “Pearl Harbor” wasn’t tells you a lot about what the American public wants when it comes to historical movies.   As you can see above, it is not included in three of the five expert lists.  That is a head-scratcher.  Thankfully, it is fairly treated on this consensus list.

Monday, September 2, 2019

History Anecdotes for Teachers


          I recently started a web site entitled "History Anecdotes for Teachers".  I taught American History and Western Civilization for decades and one reason I retired was to leave a legacy.  Over the years I collected a lot of stories and trivia to make my courses more interesting.  And to give me something to look forward to each school day.  I love telling historical anecdotes and found them effective in making history less boring for my students.  Through the web site I will pass on all the stories I have accumulated over the years.  And I am still looking for new ones to add.  I have included a section on "Today in History" which has facts, trivia, and birthdays to encourage people to visit daily (or just on your birthday).  

          I know most of the people who visit this blog are not history teachers, but some of you might be history buffs or simply like interesting stories.  I would love for you to check out the site and let me know what you think.